SFJAZZ.org | 5 Things To Know About Bobi Céspedes

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Bobi Céspedes

September 28, 2020 | by Rusty Aceves

Bobi Céspedes

This week’s Fridays at Five streaming concert is a celebration of the Bay Area Latin jazz community featuring the masterful Cuban sonera Bobi Céspedes and her band, joined by guest percussionist and former SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director John Santos. Here are five things you should know about Bobi Céspedes.

  1. She is a major figure representing Cuban music in Bay Area. Gladys “Bobi” Céspedes emigrated to the U.S. from her native Cuba in 1959, living in New York for a decade before moving to the Bay Area. She co-founded the pioneering band Conjunto Céspedes in 1981 with her brother Luis and nephew Guillermo, eventually expanding to a 12-piece ensemble and touring the world, recording for the Green Linnet/Xenophile label and releasing a trio of albums that mixed pre-revolution Cuban melodies with modern horn arrangements and big band influences. The group won a pair of Latin Album of the Year awards from NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors) and received a commission from the Rockefeller Foundation to set the poetry of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén to music.
  2. She’s led a remarkable career. During her time with Conjunto Céspedes, she had the opportunity to share the stage with Tito Puenté, Celia Cruz, and Rubén Blades. After leaving the band, her international profile was raised through her work as a member of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum project, appearing on the 1998 album Supralingua and Hart’s follow-up Spirit Into Sound — both of which also featured SFJAZZ Director of Education Rebeca Mauleón and former SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Zakir Hussain. Céspedes later performed with Hart’s Bembé Orisha band, further exploring the global mix of musical influences begun with Planet Drum. In 2016, she performed at the inaugural event for the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History and Culture, sharing the bill with Angélique Kidjo and Meshell Ndegeocello.
  3. She didn’t release her debut album until 2003. Work with Conjunto Céspedes and Mickey Hart delayed Céspedes’ debut album under her own name, and upon signing to San Francisco-based Six Degrees Records, she released Rezos (Prayers) in 2003. Produced by Greg Landau (Susana Baca, Carlos “Patato” Valdes) and arranged by Oriente López, the session is a masterful blend of Cuban son and electronic beats that features Céspedes’ Planet Drum associate Nengue Hernandez on percussion and included the track “Awoyo,” a composition featured in season 4 of the hit Showtime series Dexter. Céspedes’ second album, the self-released Patakin, was released in 2009.
  4. She is one of the very few female lead singers of Lucumí ceremonial music. In 1967 Céspedes was initiated as a Yoruba-Lucumí priestess, and her faith has informed her music since the beginning. The opening title track from her debut album Rezos blends a traditional Yoruban chant invoking the Orishas, or deities, with contemporary R&B production, Cuban percussion, and a deep funky bassline. The track “Obatala” is a prayer to Céspedes’ specific Orisha, mixing in a deep West African influence. Céspedes leads classes in songs devoted to the Yoruba Orishas, available through her website.
  5. Her June 2019 SFJAZZ date was an important performance. For this date as part of the 37th San Francisco Jazz Festival, she presented the premiere of new material that would be featured on her then-forthcoming album Mujer y Cantante (Woman and Singer), released in June of this year. She was joined by her band including trumpeter Morris Amaya, guitarist and singer José Roberto Hernández, pianist Marco Díaz, bassist Saúl Sierra-Alonso, bongosero Julio Pérez, conguero Carlos Manuel Caro, and vocalist Elizabeth Fuentes. Additionally, the show features guest percussionist and former SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director John Santos on batá drums, celebrating 25 years of collaboration with Céspedes.

                            Bobi Céspedes and band at SFJAZZ, 2019

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